Vacationer Supported Agriculture Expands to New Locations

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photo collage of vsa bags, farmers, and water.

Photos from Madison Hostetter-Hill

Local Produce Bags are now available in 12 locations for the 2021season.

NC State Extension announced that it has expanded the Vacationer Supported Agriculture (VSA) initiative in 2021. The concept for VSA was developed by a team of specialists from NC State Extension and Tourism Extension as part of a 3-year USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program grant. VSA coordinates the sale of weekly produce bags to vacationers over the summer tourism season. As illustrated in this short animation, NC State’s project team and county Extension partners coordinate groups of local farmers in the growing, packaging, and delivery of bags of local produce to pick-up locations convenient to vacationers. This coordination is introduced to vacationers through local realty companies.

The VSA project was piloted in Ocean Isle Beach in 2018 and was expanded in 2019 and 2020 to other Brunswick County beaches (Sunset Beach, Holden Beach, Oak Island, and Bald Head Island), as well as Wrightsville Beach and Surf City. The program experienced exponential growth as a result of the 2019 expansion and had strong sales in 2020 despite the pandemic.

In 2021, the VSA program expanded to include N. Topsail Beach, Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach, and Ocracoke. In addition to produce bags, VSA customers can now order eggs and shrimp through partnerships with local fish houses.

In Brunswick County beaches, Men & Women United for Youth and Families, a non-profit job development center in Columbus County, acts as the aggregator of local produce and eggs from over 30 farmers. Randolph Keaton, Executive Director, oversees the operation of aggregating, packing, and delivering about one hundred bags per week by a dozen or so “youth ambassadors” who gain valuable work experience in the process. In a short film, produced this year to describe the VSA program, Keaton credits the youth for their ownership of and commitment to the VSA program. Another film, “Watermelon Man” highlights Alan Weatherly, one of the farmers who supply produce for the program.

Carteret Local Food Network, a non-profit organization based in Carteret County, is the VSA aggregator for beaches on the Crystal Coast. They connected with the VSA program in 2021 to raise awareness in the beach community and throughout their “beautiful county by the sea” of the value of local food and its contribution to a healthy, local community. Chef Caroline Dominguez, the Farm & Food Director for CLFN, spearheads the aggregation and delivery effort for Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach.

Aggregation and delivery to other VSA beach markets are led by local farmers. Brian Knowles of Bear Ridge Farms serves the Topsail Island beaches. Morgan Milne of Red Beard Farms delivers local products to Wrightsville Beach, and Thomas Midgette of Engelhard, NC packs and transports produce bags and eggs to the Ferry for delivery to Ocracoke every Sunday in June, July, and August.

To cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, all produce aggregators use appropriate safeguards and follow standard food safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.

The NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission supports the VSA program through grant funding for the aggregators serving each VSA beach market.

VSA has been both regionally and nationally recognized as an innovative approach to direct-to-consumer farm sales. For more information, contact Becky Bowen at blbowen@ncsu.edu.  To order a VSA produce bag, go to the People First Provisions website.